LONDON PRIDE is a world-class English ale, and I don’t mean one of those solemn, introspective tomes that goes down like a dose of Thackeray without Cliff Notes.
This is a pale ale the way Brits make pale ales. Smooth, lightly bittered, perfectly balanced – not hopped out the wazoo like those Cascades-addled pales from the West Coast.
Best of all, it’s drinkable till dawn.
So, why can’t this beer get a break in America?
Or, more to the point, why is it that when you go fishing for an English ale on this coast, almost all you can hook is a Bass?
I mean, our shores get pummeled by the Germans, the Dutch, the Mexicans and even the Irish. Meanwhile, England – one of the world’s great beer-drinking countries – exhibits the kind of intestinal fortitude we’re more accustomed to seeing from the French.
The British are so protective of their beer, they have laws ensuring drinkers get a full pint.
Its Campaign for Real Ale, known as CAMRA,has actually rallied citizens to protect failing breweries.
Samuel Smith’s, Bateman’s, Brakspear, Young’s, Shepherd Neame – these are revered names in English beer.
Yet, almost all the Brit beer that floats over to this side of the Atlantic is an overrated, uninspired ale that Otto in “A Fish Called Wanda” might insult as “a stuck-up, snot-nosed, English, giant twerp. “
A fortnight or so ago (that’s Old English for 14 days, mate), I sat down for a taste of Pride and an explanation from Fuller’s export manager Stamford Galsworthy.
He managed to grab us a seat at the Elephant & Castle (1800 Market St., Center City), a chain whose idea of British fare is Heineken and nachos. (Though, to its credit, the place now pours London Pride. )
Fuller’s fate, Galsworthy believes, is partly its own fault, and partly bad business luck.
For years, it’s tried to make a splash with its ESB – or Extra Special Bitter – a category it basically invented. It’s a label that has won more CAMRA awards than any other brew, a beer that’s been described as “the ultimate drinking machine. “
The problem (aside from the fact that nearly every U.S. micro now makes its own version of the beefy ESB) is that Americans don’t turn to British beers for such filling mouthfuls.
“There are certain brands,” said Galsworthy without naming names, “that have not done Britain any favors . . . The perception is that British beer is to be consumed in quantity, not quality. “
Fuller’s might’ve fine-tuned strategies years ago, but it’s been derailed by a tough string of business twists. It had to virtually start from scratch last year when the Heineken takeover of Germany’s Paulaner brewery forced the breakup of its importer.
Its new importer, Distinguished Brands of Colorado, is trying to help Fuller’s remake its image, mostly by touting the lighter-tasting London Pride as its anchor brand. It also stopped producing its India Pale Ale, a sad loss.
The target is, obviously, Bass.
That’s a big fish. Bass is made by Coors.
It’s imported by Labatt USA, a division of Interbrew, the Anheuser-Busch of Europe. Its red triangle is the oldest corporate trademark in the English-speaking world.
Fuller Smith & Turner is an independent brewery, still populated by the same family that started it in 1845.
But Galsworthy notes London Pride already outsells Bass, seven to one in London, partly because of its vast pub holdings. (In England, brewers are permitted to own their own bars. )
“It’s unfortunate, but we have to compare ourselves to Bass, because that’s what people already know,” Galsworthy said.
“The flavor’s toned down a bit. I guess you’d call it ‘accessibility. ‘ “
Even Galsworthy swallows hard when he pronounces that word.
“It’s patronizing, frankly,” he said. “Consumer expectations have come up so far, and I think producers have failed to keep up with them. “
I don’t think we have to worry that Fuller’s is dumbing down to compete with Bass.
It still produces a beautiful London Porter, an ale that could show Guinness a thing or two about dark beer. And I won’t even get into that bottle of 2004 Vintage Fullers Ale that was just released; that baby’s so big, you’ll let it collect dust for three years before cracking it open.
But can London Pride beat Bass?
Probably not until it does something about its price.
London Pride goes for about $35 a case. Bass averages around $30 in Pennsylvania, with deep discounts over the border that put it into the low $20s.
But do yourself a favor and match up these Union Jacks in a bar, by the pint, where the price is about the same.
If flavor has anything to do with it, yes, London Pride can land Bass – hook, line and sinker.
I’m headed to the Great American Beer Festival in Denver this weekend. With 1,600 different beers on tap, it’s impossible to taste it all. Usually, my favorite flavors come from out-of-the-way breweries I’d never have a chance to visit. I’m looking forward to the music, too, of Colorado-based Gobs O’Phun, an Irish band whose CD of Celtic beer-drinking songs is brilliantly entitled “Liverdance” . . .
Eulogy (136 Chestnut St., Old City) is getting into the Eagles spirit, with a Sunday afternoon beer and football luncheon each weekend. Watch the big game with a plateful of Belgian fries, buffalo wings and beer brats, along with beers from a different featured brewery. This weekend: Weyerbacher. Tix are 30 bucks. Call 215-413-1918 for info . . .
New on area shelves: Appalachian Kipona Fest Lager, Unibroue Edition 2004, Grolsch Amber Ale, Samuel Adams Octoberfest, Anderson Valley Brother David’s Triple, Smuttynose Pumpkin Ale and Avery 11.
Oct. 9 – Seventh annual Kennett Brewfest (Broad Street between State and Cypress, Kennett Square). Beer-tasting featuring more than 25 regional breweries, with food and music. Taps open: 2-6 p.m. Tix: $25. Info: 610-444-8188.
October 8 – Oktoberfest at the Farmhouse Barn (1449 Chestnut St., Emmaus, Pa.). Harvest beers paired with foods by chef Michael Adams, hosted by John Hansell of The Malt Advocate magazine. Cost: $70 per person. Starts 7 p.m. Info: 610-967-6225.
Joe Sixpack, by Staff Writer Don Russell, was written this week with a glass of Yards Love Stout.